CHICAGO — In a year which has been lacking dramatic, late-inning victories by the first-place Chicago Cubs, Sunday night's finish more than made up for the deficit in Chicago's 7-6 win over the Seattle Mariners in 12 innings.
The Cubs were down 6-0 after three innings thanks to a dismal start by newcomer Brian Matusz. He gave up three, two-run home runs forcing social media to question the sanity of Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein and anyone else associated with the move. "The only thing that went wrong [tonight] is Brian had a tough start," Maddon said afterward.
Travis Wood pitched his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning to keep the score 6-2 then played left field in the seventh, making a catch running backward into the wall, then returned to pitch with two outs in the eighth only to end the inning by picking off Mariners infielder Shawn O'Malley. "Travis is the star of the game," Maddon said. "That was necessary based on the bullpen."
The bullpen has been used a lot lately including Hector Rondon, who pitched two clean innings. Of all the pitchers he was supposed to have the night off over anyone else. In all, the relief staff threw nine shutout innings in replace of Matusz. "I didn't want Rondon to pitch and that was probably the best he's thrown all year," Maddon said.
Finally, starter Jon Lester was called to pinch hit with the winning run on third base and one out in the 12th inning. Yes, that Lester who is a career .051 hitter. He laid down a two-strike bunt, scoring Jason Heyward and creating pandemonium at Wrigley Field. "He kind of talked about it the inning before," Lester explained. "I was surprised I was swinging. I thought I was up there to bunt. [He] put it on then took it off then put it back on."
The clubhouse after the game was all smiles, hugs and jokes considering the improbable comeback. Down 6-0 the Cubs chipped away using their best hitting pitcher to play the field and their worst hitting hurler to bring home the winning run. Lester was asked what he was thinking at the plate.
"I blacked out," he joked. "I wasn't thinking at all. There was no thinking for me. I was trying to pay attention and not miss any signs. I was just trying not to screw anything up."
Lester did his job but he never gets the chance if not for Wood, who played left field for the second time this year.
"I really wanted to record an out," Wood said. "I was hoping it would be less dramatic."
Wood caught a Franklin Gutierrez shot to left in the seventh inning as he hit the wall hard before quickly throwing the ball back in to keep a runner at first base.
"I didn't feel it," Wood said of the brick behind the ivy at Wrigley Field. "I guess adrenaline. Maybe I'll feel it tomorrow."
The dugout went crazy when he caught the ball prompting Wood to be asked what his teammates said to him when he came in after the inning.
"Hit the cutoff man," Wood said with a laugh.
This was one of those special nights. The Cubs have had a few on national television — remember Jake Arrieta's no-hitter last year? — but it had been a while since walking off on one. In fact this was just their second of the season and first since May 8.
"That's the kind of moment that can propel you," Maddon said. "We haven't had that."
Wood added: "This was a big team victory. We went nuts. Jon pulled it off. He has a walk off hit. Unbelievable."
And the mastermind of it all is Maddon who got his first "shower" in the Cubs party room reserved for postgame winning celebrations only. Soaked while talking with reporters afterward he tried to explain what just happened. With no one left but a few starting pitchers the Cubs pulled victory from defeat.
"I have to take a show of hands for the bullpen [for tomorrow]," Maddon said half-smiling.
The plan was to use John Lackey if the game went any further, then find a replacement for his next start on Wednesday. The irony of the whole night is the Cubs were in this predicament because they wanted to give their starters some extra rest, hence Matusz taking the mound to start the game. His poor performance almost necessitated Lackey coming in on short rest. Only Maddon could make it all work. That's why he got the shower from his players.
"First time," Maddon said wiping his glasses off.
But the most unusual aspect had to be Lester — of all people — winning the game with his bat. He has been working on his bunting.
"Trying to disguise it and at the same time get around early enough to recognize the pitch," Lester said. "That's huge. Joe does it again. You kind of sit there and scratch your head and it seems to always kind of work out."
It does seem to. Amazingly.